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Strong language

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 16:23 UK time, Tuesday, 6 June 2006

The Governors are funky dudes. Or their programme complaints committee is, at least.

Their latest complaints bulletin rules that Radio 1's Chris Moyles wasn't being homophobic when he called a ringtone "gay". Young people - apparently - now routinely say "gay" when they mean "rubbish". And the complaints committee is "familiar with hearing this word in this context".


That's the problem though. Keeping up with the latest street argot. Is "bollocks" now OK or not? I have to say, I thought it had been since the Sex Pistols won their case back in 1977. You'll remember it. The title of their album was "Never mind the bollocks, here's the Sex Pistols". A policewoman in Nottingham complained. M'learned friends got involved... and it was decided that "bollocks" was OK following the intervention of a linguist from the local university.

Chris MoylesSome 30 years later, it's still not a unanimous view. When Today referred on-air to those rather popular "Bollocks to Blair" T-shirts that were doing the rounds after the hunting vote, sensitivities were aroused. We argued - successfully - that the word, while clearly abusive, wasn't necessarily offensive.

It's not always that simple. I used to receive two or three letters a month complaining that once again Brian Widlake - when he was one of the presenters of The World at One - had used the phrase "cock-up" to describe some public figure's minor oversight. I decided to settle it once and for all and started to compose a well-researched letter showing how the complainant was flat wrong and an idiot to boot - but no slang dictionary could help. In fact they made it worse, linking the phrase to a very dubious practice at a minor public school.

There is a very useful chart which, sadly, was last updated some time ago. Even so, it's re-assuring to know that you can say "peace off", "wear the fox hat" or call someone a "salad tosser" with relative impunity. In the intervening six years, it seems that "shag" has moved down a peg or two and - if Chris Moyles is now our arbiter in this - so has "slag".

Context is all ... as those funky dudes on the Governors' committee explained when they reviewed a deluge of complaints over the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves back in 2005. The Committee noted the words ‘bastard’, ‘bollocks’, ‘piss’, ‘bugger’ and ‘bloody’ and "after careful consideration given to the context" decided that "the language was part of the rough-and-tumble of the story, appropriate to the rough and coarse characters depicted and the age they lived in".

Maybe that's what got Moyles off the hook this time.


  • 1.
  • At 12:57 PM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Ian wrote:

And that's the problem... Moyles gets off the hook again. Has he read the Editorial Guidelines? Will the BBC keep defending him ad infinitum? Also, the committee acknowledged that the word would have caused offence to some of the audience. Isn't that reason enough not to use it? The committee's comment "it would be advisable to think more carefully about using the word 'gay' in its derogatory sense in the future" seems to lack bxxxxxxs.

This is an overused rhetorical exercise, it's true, but...

bearing in mind that the first hundred or so times I heard the word "jew" was at school and was invariably used to mean "mean", you can substitute "Jew" and "stingy" into the report, and it would still be as factually accurate:

The Committee noted that the word “gay”, in addition to being used to mean “homosexual” or “carefree”, was often now used to mean “lame” or “rubbish”. This is a widespread current usage of the word amongst young people. The Committee was familiar with hearing this word in this context.
In broadcasting to an audience of predominantly young people, it was to be expected that Chris Moyles would use expressions and words which the listeners used themselves.

  • 3.
  • At 10:14 AM on 14 Jun 2006,
  • aleks sudar wrote:

i think that when people say the word gay they dont mean it in a homophobic way they just mean something like 'rubbish' or 'stupid' and i think it is ok for people to use it in that context because we have changed the meaning of the word gay from being jolly ang happy to being someone who is attracted to the same as them.
so i agree with most of what is being said in the article about the word 'gay'.

  • 4.
  • At 10:15 AM on 14 Jun 2006,
  • Tommy T MC wrote:

i find that the chart of swearwords is very true and that the BBC have given factual information and have not been one sided or bias. The selection of speech is used in a mature manor to inform and not to offend. This article is purley made to try and teach people a lesson not to offend.

  • 5.
  • At 10:19 AM on 14 Jun 2006,
  • Hannah wrote:

As a teenager I have to keep up with the "in" words to say, words like "gay" are now regularly used not for what they used to mean. "Gay" now means, like it says in the above article, that it is rubbish. I mean look at the word wicked, it is now widely used to mean cool but it used to mean evil and twisted.
Sometimes these words get confusing beacause people now use the word "bad" to mean it is really good so now when someone says "thats bad" you have to ask them do you mean "bad bad" or "bad good"!
Altogether I do not think that Moyles should not be penalised for saying a song was "gay" when he was probably just calling it rubbish and not homophobic.

  • 6.
  • At 10:28 AM on 14 Jun 2006,
  • Kelisha Cheema wrote:

I don't agree with letting Chris Moyles get away with using this language. It causes offence to his audiences and leads to them changing stations. Is that what the BBC wants? This was very immature of him and as a grown man he should know better. It is ok for a teenager to use these terms but as an adult he should be more sensitive. Personally I dislike Chris Moyles as I find him extremely immature and I am less than half his age. The words he uses are totally inappropriate. What example is he setting to the younger generation? He should be ashamed of himself.

  • 7.
  • At 10:29 AM on 14 Jun 2006,
  • Hannah Huntingdon wrote:

It is true, that nowadays kids use gay to mean rubbish. However when they use it they are not being homophobic, they just use it to express an opinion. They also call one another gay, but they don't mean they are gay, they mean they are stupid or annoying. I think that although they are using it in the wrong context it is a harmless trend.
I also Believe that mild swear words should be tolerated, especially when they are expressing an opinion. Most people use swear words anyway at home and around the house, so maybe they should be tolerated in Public.
On the other hand, If the swear word used, is offensive towards another person, and specifically used to offend someone, i find this intollerable.

  • 8.
  • At 10:34 AM on 14 Jun 2006,
  • susie edwards wrote:

It think that Chris Moyles " getting of the hook" again is proof that swearing is becoming more accepted and less offencive in recent generations. I do agree that they should not be used to insult people, but there is nothing wrong with saying "Thats crap" (Thats a load of rubbish).
Many words such as gay first meant happy, then meant homosexual, and is now used as rubbish or stupid by younger generations. Its just our language evolving. If people relaxed about these words and found out what they mean in todays socioty then they will understand that it probably means something totaly
unoffensive and 'normal'.

  • 9.
  • At 10:41 AM on 14 Jun 2006,
  • Redd wrote:

Its quite a sad fact,but very true. The word gay is used in a derogatory way.Alot. Its meaning range from "Stupid" to "Ugly". I dont know where or why it came to mean this. Is It Tv? Parents? Who knows but the point is that somewhere along the line it has been put into quite alot of childrens minds that being gay at all is a bad thing. Very bad thing.

  • 10.
  • At 04:35 PM on 14 Jun 2006,
  • Susie Edwards wrote:

Our language is just evolving. 100 years ago english used to be very different from today and todays language is most likely to have changed by 2106. It will always evolve and change and there is nothing wrong with that, but I do agree with Redd that if its change makes something that is perfectly acceptable into something wrong and 'dirty' then the evolution of the english language does need to be prodded in the right direction a litle bit more!(and soon)

But language has moved on...

but language has moved on yes it may sound fowl but its a trend.... el xx

to be honest i think this langauge should be accepted in todays society, as it is used more and more by the kids, and people of today. Braaap!!

  • 14.
  • At 12:29 PM on 15 Jun 2006,
  • Jade wrote:

Chris moyles is a modern day icon for young people in society today. Most people would understand what he ment about the ringtone being 'gay ' yet on the other hand i do repsect the fact that others may have taken offence. Yet im sure this was a complete inocent act, that was not ment to cause any offence at all , the only effect that i could see wrong would be that he used this language to relate to younger listeners , maybe not the older listeners of the morning radio show .
The bbc are right to defend Chris Moyles as this is an innocent act and i am sure he is concerned by the upsert caused. As I am a regular listener to the show i personally do not find the language used offensive.

  • 15.
  • At 12:30 PM on 15 Jun 2006,
  • Lauren wrote:

I think that people are making a big deal out of nothing.If people are using the word "gay" to mean rubbish then there is no real problem.And also the word "gay" in its real terms means happy so it has no relevance to homosexuals.If people are offended then they need to get over it.Its not like young children are going to be listening anyway as it is on whilst they are at school.

  • 16.
  • At 12:31 PM on 15 Jun 2006,
  • Tiffany wrote:

maybe chris moyles was wrong to use the phrase that he did to describe a certain ring tone, but if this language is so inappropriate why do so many people still listen to what he has to say? chris moyles is popular with young teenages for his morning shows on Radio 1, so should he not try and keep them listening by talking to them in a way they know how? i do understand how maybe some of the older listeners of the morning show would not appreciate the use of this language as to be fair it is only realy used by the younger listeners who are often using slang. i think the BBC are right to defend chris moyles because at the end of the day he is doing his job properly and is still very popular amongst mainly younger but often some older listeners as i have parents who find moyles entertaining and amusing. i am a regualr listener to chris moyles and do not find his language offensive or disrespectful.

  • 17.
  • At 12:32 PM on 15 Jun 2006,
  • Reecee wrote:

i dont get it - whats the big deal?? he said one word which has is used in everyday speech by teenagers and there offended?. It isnt like young children would be able to listen to it since his show is on when they are at school, and eventually they will hear it, if they here it in the context of homosexuality, or the new modern term. Now if you think about it, what word would you prefer: gay? or a more stronger offence word?

As you can probably tell, you can see i think they are making a bigg deal out of nothing.

  • 18.
  • At 12:37 PM on 15 Jun 2006,
  • Olivia wrote:

I think that language and swear words have moved on a lot since the last century and therefore people shouldnt get so hung up on when people swear. It is their decision after all and no-one is forcing anyone to do it. x

  • 19.
  • At 12:38 PM on 15 Jun 2006,
  • Lish wrote:

I don't think there is anything wrong with saying the term gay -like chris moyles obivously did, used it as another word for rubbish! ...But then there has being complaints over swearing in a film... why? :S ..if people are so bothered about the language they may be subjected to, then don't watch it... simple really.

  • 20.
  • At 12:39 PM on 15 Jun 2006,
  • kieran wrote:

I think people are making a fuss out of nothing. Most people use the word ''gay'' in today's society, language has moved on a great deal since the last century. Although I do understand it used to be unacceptable but nowadays it is teenagers normal vocab and people should get to know about this so then it won't be to offending when said on radios etc. If you look up the word gay in the dictionary it also means happy... not everyone refers to the homosexual definition of gay. I think everyone should lay off Chris Moyles because he is good at his job despite what people think of the language he uses. :) x

  • 21.
  • At 12:40 PM on 15 Jun 2006,
  • Anna wrote:

Swear words definately mean less today than they did a few years ago. I appreciate that a few years ago I was younger (I am 15) and so rude words always seemed worse, but I am certain that the bad language used today is said much more regularly and with less meaning than they used to. A couple of my friends tell their parents to "f*** off" and I personally find this shocking but its just how they live.

  • 22.
  • At 12:44 PM on 15 Jun 2006,
  • George wrote:

My opinion is that if Chris wanted to use these words off air then that is his choice, but taking into account the time that these shows are on, and the age of people that could be listening i think it is unacceptable. The bigger problem is that bad language is being used more frequently on radio, in songs and on TV. Eventually someone needs to draw the line and stop the increased chances of offending audiences.

  • 23.
  • At 12:48 PM on 15 Jun 2006,
  • Chris Delaney wrote:

I feel that what once was considered obscene language and should not be used on television or radio has changed so much over the last 20 years. Also I think that words meanings have begun to change. Like when Chris Moyles said "Gay" and said it meant rubbish, people use the word gay to mean rubbish nowadays and it should not be taken offencively. I don't think people should take words such as gay to seriously because it is now becoming a slang word for rubbish. There are many different words like this aswell which have changed meaning over the years.

  • 24.
  • At 09:18 AM on 20 Jun 2006,
  • Dan wrote:

Personally I think that the offensiveness of poor language is soon to die out. A high percentage of the younger generations don't find swear words offensive nowadays and so once these younger generations have grown older, eventually nobody will care. personally I have no problem, I treat swear words as normal words, they dont affect me and I have grown up with them all my life. However, I think that as a matter of respect, people should reframe from swearing around those who do still find it offensive.

  • 25.
  • At 10:18 PM on 29 Jun 2006,
  • Andrew wrote:

If Chris Moyels has said the ring tone was *racial slur* no one would be arguing. The fact is that society still thinks some how equating gay with rubbish is some how not homophonic. If I equated blackness with rubbish I would be called a racist, and rightly so, or as the previous poster pointed out using Jew to mean stingy.

The fact that young people use a term which promotes homophobia does not justify its use. Yes language changes, that does not mean that you have to accept it blindly. Yes gay used to mean happy and then homosexual. But when gay was used as happy it was not a word that was used to recognize a group of people. There were no "gays" when it meant happy. That’s the difference that people don't seem to get.

  • 26.
  • At 12:39 PM on 06 Jul 2006,
  • Nick Reynolds wrote:

Hi - I work for BBC Editorial Policy.

The language list Kevin links to interesting but was last updated in 2000 and is a bit out of date.

Here is the BBC's current policy on language. We also have this advice note.

  • 27.
  • At 05:06 PM on 06 Jul 2006,
  • stinky wrote:

Its a shame that so many people spend so much time on the subject of what is offensive or acceptable as far as words/actions etc of others are concerned,
more so because certain celebrities are well known to say controversial things from time to time so avoiding them is as easy as click click off.

I for one will not be told by anybody what i can say /write/sing/or whistle,time to wake up and stop moaning,there are far more important issues that need attention today.

  • 28.
  • At 05:20 PM on 06 Jul 2006,
  • Sue Beverley wrote:

I think you've missed the point. To use the word "gay" for lame is just adding another meaning to general usage, not replacing it. If you referred to a curved object being "bent" is that being homophobic? English language is always evolving, that's the beauty of it.

  • 29.
  • At 12:51 PM on 10 Jul 2006,
  • Stephan Jones wrote:

It's not difficult to see the origins of the use of the word gay to mean rubbish. With the increasing acceptance of homosexuality, and increasing visibility in public life, there's been a corresponding backlash. It started in schools a few years ago, where the phrase "don't be gay" was/is used reinforce the belief that being gay is the ultimate in unacceptability. This has mutated from an adnoun to an adjective, to associate something unacceptable as gay and therefore bad.

Words are often adopted to mean something different to their original meaning, such as when "bad" is used to mean "good". The major distinction between this and the use of gay to mean bad is that "gay" is commonly associated with a sexuality, and therefore with anyone sharing that sexuality. Despite recent progression, homophobia is still tacitly accepted in a way that rasicm isn't. This doesn't make it okay. As has been pointed out, if people suddenly adopted the word "nigger" or "paki" to mean bad, it would be rightly deemed totally unacceptable. So why should gay people sit back and accept the fact that a term used to describe themselves should be equated with rubbish?

  • 30.
  • At 11:09 AM on 12 Jul 2006,
  • Andrew wrote:

Last time I check I didn't see "bent" as a option to describe sexual orintation on a form. I do see "gay" however. I don't identify myself as "bent", I do identify myself as "gay". So I think that the analogy you draw is critially flawed. For better of for worse Gay is the word that is used to describe people of a homosexual orintation, if you also you is to mean rubbish it is at the very least insensitive, and ignorant, and at the worst homophobic.
Again I make the point that a racial slur of this sort would not be tolerated, but because it s a sexual minority we are fair game.

  • 31.
  • At 11:59 PM on 19 Jul 2006,
  • Andrew S. wrote:

And now Jeremy Clarkson follows in Chris Moyles example. Clearly the BBC are not bothered by promoting homophobia and homophobic bullying.

  • 32.
  • At 05:33 PM on 26 Sep 2006,
  • Lee Dowell wrote:

Can I please have the names and addresses of the people who feel that the BBC can say that Gay is usable as a put down, I think an investigation into who pulls there leads would be important.

The BBC has become nothing more important than a mouthpiece for rich, white people and you should all be ashamed of yourselves, silence equates agreement, I understand your all afraid the truth may cost you your jobs but your supposed to be JOURNALISTS, not repeaters of the official line.


Would you promote the word nigger as an acceptable put down?
no, well then why gay?, you should try to educate not just be uncle toms.

  • 33.
  • At 03:16 PM on 26 Nov 2006,
  • Brian Widlake wrote:

To Kevin March re 'cock-up'

Come off it,Kevin,we settled that one with Robert Burchfield,chief editor of Oxford Dictionaries and editor of Fowler's Modern Usage,on air. You'll find Chambers Concise a better authority - 'muddle,mess,confusion.' Once Burchfield put the complaints to rest there were no more comments from prurient listeners. The habit you refer to is not confined to 'minor public schools' - it has a much wider constituency.

Yours Brian

  • 34.
  • At 07:02 PM on 29 May 2007,
  • jack wrote:

it's funny... the word "chav" has been in use up north where i'm from in the form "charver" (along with "bewer" and "gadgie" etc) since at least the late 70s... likewise this usage of "gay" has been in common currency amongst charvers for at least the last 20 years (as well as public school boys) in my experience.

I find it a bit rich for people of my parents' generation to complain about language change when their parents' generation was happy enough with gay having it's original meaning.

Perhaps this is a kind of poetic justice!

  • 35.
  • At 08:32 PM on 04 Sep 2007,
  • Mike wrote:

I think it would be far more profitable for many of the people here who have complained about the words used by another to instead spend time learning to spell and punctuate theirs properly.

  • 36.
  • At 08:51 PM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • J.WESTERMAN wrote:

One reason that many of today's films and programs are accepted without complaint is that people, like myself, have had more than enough of torrents of foul language pouring into the living room We are finding real entertainment elsewhere.
It is especially sad that the BBC has succumbed. The usual warning about “strong language” is weak- kneed and pathetic.

  • 37.
  • At 03:13 PM on 08 Sep 2007,
  • J.WESTERMAN wrote:

I would love to see the BBC advertise one night a week as a “No Foul Language Night”.
What would it do for the ratings? I wonder where the material could be obtained. Are there still authors who can rely on their brains?
Too adventurous and too much to hope for I suppose. Nevertheless it is nice to dream of better days.

  • 38.
  • At 07:49 PM on 10 Sep 2007,
  • EJT wrote:

Ian wrote: "Also, the committee acknowledged that the word would have caused offence to some of the audience. Isn't that reason enough not to use it?"

No: it is not sufficient reason.

I'm offended by a lot of things I hear, including much said by the religious propagandists who take up so much air time, but I accept their right to have their views broadcast.

I find hearing details of child abuse cases objectionable and offensive; but I think I ought to be aware of what goes on, and that it's right to find such activities offensive.

In a democracy, which depends on the free exchange of ideas, we have a duty to be prepared to be offended by things which don't appeal to us personally. Sometimes we may even change our opinions!

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